The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa

The ecstasy of Saint Theresa is a marble statue made by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Naples, 7 December 1598 - Rome, 28 November 1680) in 1647. It can be found in the Santa Maria Della Vittoria Church in the Della Vittoria-district in Rome. This church was dedicated to Saint Paul and it was built for the Discalced Carmelites (also called the Barefoot Carmelities). One of the founders of this order was Theresa of Avila (Avila, 28 March 1515 - Alba de Tor mes, 4 October 4 1582) who is showcased in the observed sculpture (and in this statue, she is pictured with one bare foot!). The statue was commissioned by Cardinal Patriarch Federico Cornaro, who wanted it to be his funerary monument. The reason why is that Theresa of Avila was his favourite holy person and his family had been very dedicated to her canonization. Ever since Bernini made this statue, some people feel offended by its sexual aspect of it. In this reflection, we will investigate why Bernini chose to picture Saint Theresa the way he did.

1. The Baroque
2. The Life of Gian Lorenzo Bernini
3. Theresa of Avila
3.1 What kind of ecstasy?
3.2 Bernini's interpretation of Theresa her quote
4. Science vs. Church
4.1 The debate surrounding the sun: did Bernini take a stance?
4.2 Reasoning or feeling
4.3 The rhetoric of 'emotion' as problem-solving
4.4 St Theresa as a paradigm of feeling
4.5 Bernini's 'The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni
4.6 Spectating and reflecting
5. A theater of exemplary belief
6. Sources

The Baroque

The Baroque is an artistic style originating from Italy around 1600, its artists wanting to aim at people's senses. The most prominent reason for this, is that the Catholic Church needed a weapon against the Protestant Reformation, communicating religious themes in 'direct and emotional involvement'. The word baroque literally means 'irregular in shape', which refers to the plan of movement that is present in most of the typical baroque artwork. To give a clear and correct overview of the Baroque style period is, however, quite difficult, as for example the architectural section alone brings many different characterisations along with it. Some of the most prominent characteristics, that are all featured in the Cornaro Chapel, are the use of illusion, the dramatic use of light, the use of movement and the appeal to emotions.

The life of Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini was an Italian architect and sculptor, among others, from the Baroque period and is considered by many to be the greatest artist of the 17th century. Bernini became famous in Rome, and especially at the papal court, from a very young age. For example, in his 20 years of being the Pope, Urban VIII commissioned many different works of Bernini and made him the architect of the Saint Peter Basilica in 1629, when Bernini was only 32. For the Basilica, Bernini designed the Campanili: the Bell Towers. Multiple architects and mathematicians supported Bernini's structures and ideas for the Campanili and did not see any fault in the matter: any warnings from others were ignored. Right after the first tower was built, cracks began to show in its façade: the first signs that the foundation could not hold the towers. The work on the second tower started, but it collided not only with the death of Pope Urban VII in 1644 and the election of another (Pope Innocent X) but also with a poor economy an d insufficient funds as a remnant of war. It was during this time that Bernini fell from grace from the new Pope and thus did not work for him exclusively. This enabled Federico Cornaro to hire Bernini to design the Cornaro Chapel in the Santa Maria Della Vittoria. Despite these commissions, however, Bernini still wanted to return to the papal court. Pope Innocent X had set up a contest for the creation of a fountain to adorn an obelisk brought to Rome and had asked the leading architects of Rome to make designs. Bernini, fallen from the pope's good graces, was not one of these. However, Bernini still had acquaintances and admirers throughout Rome and was persuaded to create a design to be secretly installed in the Palazzo Pamphili in such a place that the Pope would have to notice it. The pope admired it in such a way that, even though he and several others had a great dislike towards Bernini, he felt that he had to hire Bernini to work on what would become the 'Fountain of the Four Rivers'.It is said that without the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, Bernini could not have constructed the Fountain of the Four Rivers the way he did, as Bernini used the ideas, knowledge and skills on unification he had acquired while working on the Cornaro Chapel. With the 'Fountain of the Four Rivers', Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini was back in the grace of Pope Innocent X in 1651 and celebrated amongst the rest of the artistic elite. He started receiving commissions from the papacy again, but did not, and would never again, work exclusively for the Pope anymore. As for the next Popes, Bernini remained the favourite of the court. In 1680, after a serious illness, Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini died in Rome.

Theresa of Avila

When you look at the statue one of the first things you see is a woman lying on her back: Theresa of Avila. Theresa of Avila is famous for being a reformer of the Carmelite order. Teresa was canonized in 1622, just a few years before Bernini started making the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa. Theresa of Avila is also known as Theresa of Jesus. Because the reason why is that Theresa was really focused on the crucifixion of Jesus. She felt like she had to be grateful for his sufferings and promised to never sin again. This is where the story of her statue really begins. After this prayer, she felt that God really accepted her and was pouring his love into her. We know this because Theresa was ordered to write books about her ideas and experiences. In one of her books she wrote the following text about one of her experiences with God:

'Beside me on the left appeared an angel in bodily form . . . He was not tall but short, and very beautiful; and his face was so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest ranks of angels, who seem to be all on fire . . . In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated my entrails. When he pulled it out I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one can not possibly wish it to cease, nor is one's soul content with anything but God. This is not a physical but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it -- even a considerable share.'

What she describes here is what Bernini shows us in his statue. We see Theresa with her eyes half closed and her mouth half open, her head is tilted back. An angel is standing above her, holding the spear as described in the quote. She is in a state of ecstasy.

But there is a discussion going on about this. We see a nun in ecstasy, and of course most of the religious people see this as a spiritual ecstasy. But that is something not everyone is sure about.

What kind of ecstasy?

Even though the Ecstasy of saint Theresa is seen as one of Bernini's greatest works, some people do feel some kind of resentment towards it. The open mouth, the closed eyes, head tilted back ... is it really a psychic ecstasy? Some people think it is not. They think it is the orgasm of a nun. A lot of historians defend the idea that we are looking not only at spiritual ecstasy, but also at sexual ecstasy. One of the most authorized of these historians is Simon Schama. He points out the fact that Theresa's facial expressions make her look like she is having orgasm. Furthermore, he says that the quote from her autobiography shows earthly directness. In this interpretation, the spear as described by Theresa is an imagery for the male sexual organ. According to Simon Schama, Bernini also interprets Theresa's text this way. He shows this by the hand of the angel, that is uncovering one of her breasts and the fact that the spear is not pointing in the direction of the nun's heart as Theresa describes it, but more lower: it points towards her sexual organ. This interpretation is believable, because when one looks at the picture under this text, they can see what he means.

As discussed, Theresa's text is open for multiple interpretations. However, this is not what is most important for the meaning of this statue. What is important, is what Bernini's interpretation of the text really was. And to find that out, the whole image needs to be taken into consideration.

Bernini's interpretation of Theresa her quote

Bernini designed the entire chapel, meaning that he used several stylistic devices to get the message across. Aside from the statue of St. Theresa herserf, the two parts that stand out the most are the golden lines behind them and the marble people sitting on the left and the right sides. The golden beams represent, as will be described later in this text, a divine light, pointing out the fact that it the statue about a holy person. Furthermore, this light explains the facial expressions we see on Theresa's face. It is not about sexual lust, it is about the overwhelming feeling of love she gets when she feels the love of god in her veins.

Moreover, the marble people we see in the walls on both sides of the main statue are of importance. As will be explained later in this text, these are the principle of Bernini, Cardinal Patriarch Federico and some other doges and cardinals from his family. The spectators are vieuwing at and discussing what is going on in the statue. Bernini placed them in a sort of theatre and lets them discuss the event they are watching. It gives the observer of the statue the feeling that they are in some kind of theatre too, making it very important where the viewer is located. Bernini made a very conscious choice by placing them there and placing the viewer in front. It is clear that Bernini wanted the viewers to discuss the statue. For that, it is important from which angle the statue is seen.Bernini placed the statue pretty high and thus is not on eye level but seen from a lower point of view, as can be seen in the picture under this text. This is important because from this angle, the spear that the angel holds does not point to the sexual organs at all. It is actually pointing right to the heart, as discribed by Theresa.

These aspects suggest that the statue of St. Theresa is not about sexual orgasm at all. For Bernini, it was important that viewers discussed the statue. Therefore, it can be said thet he made the statue in so that the vieuwer's point of view is the one that he thought was the right one to look at his creation: showing the spear poining at Theresa's heart. There is physical pleasure, but this is caused by the love of god she felt. This makes the main point of the statue the spiritual ecstasy.

Science vs. Church

Bernini created The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa in 1652, almost exactly in the middle of the 17th century. Although to art historians the 17th century is most prominently known as the age of the Baroque, it was also an age of important transitions within science and philosophy. It is the century of 'The Scientific Revolution': the period of pioneering developments within the natural sciences that transformed traditional, often Medieval, views of society and nature. In the 18th century the Scientific Revolution would become part of the Enlightenment. Although it is said to be a revolution, the Medieval sciences were an important base for later scientists. Over the last decennia the term 'Scientific Revolution' has therefore been doubted, also because of the notions of determinism or a kind of Marxist, dialectical development.

The debate surrounding the sun: did Bernini take a stance?

In any case, the 17th century saw a couple of scientific developments which rattled at the dogmatic fundaments of the Roman-Catholic Church. The position of the Church in several matters of faith, which were for centuries taken as the absolute truth of the Holy Scripture, became almost untenable. The most famous case is probably the development of heliocentrism by Copernicus, Keppler and Galilei, among others. Significant in this aspect is the presence of rays of sunlight in the Cornaro Chapel, which guide the light that falls through an invisible cupola towards the statue. The Church and the pope were forced to respond to heliocentrism after treatises by Copernius and Galilei became well-known within society. Eventually in 1616 the Roman Catholic Church claimed that the mode l made good sense as a hypothesis, that is, as a possible mathematical model, but not as absolute truth. Cardinal Robert Bellarmine stated:

"If there were a real proof that the Sun is in the center of the universe, that the Earth is in the third sphere, and that the Sun does not go round the Earth but the Earth round the Sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scriptu re which appear to teach the contrary, and we should rather have to say that we did not understand them than declare an opinion false which has been proved to be true. But I do not think there is any such proof since none has been shown to me."

Koestler (1959), p. 447 - 448

The Church thus maintained that the geocentric model, as it was interpreted from the bible, was the truth. Whether or not the addition of golden rays of sun to the chapel means that Bernini took a stance regarding the place of the sun within the planetary system has thus far appeared improvable. However, regarding the context of this statue, it seems very possible that he claims that God determines where the sun will shine, and that sunlight contains a divine dimension.

Reasoning or feeling?

Another important thinker from the 17th century was René Descartes, whose works can be seen as exponents of rationalism. Descartes published his Discourse de la Méthode in 1637, transforming scientific methodology. Regarding Descartes in relation to our subject, the way in which religion and science relate to each other epistemologically is very important. Both receive knowledge from different methodologies, although there is the question whether religion has a methodology at all. Where religion is based on a priori faith, sensory revelation and supernatural sacredness, science, or in any case science from the Scientific Revolution onwards, receives its knowledge from ratio, logic, and empiricism. Descartes' theories were of great importance to these epistemological developments within science and philosophy, which showed all too clearly that the facts on which the Church based its power could be disproved, just like geocentrism had been. Although one may think that because of this he undermines the absolute, dogmatic faiths of the Roman-Catholic Church, Descartes remained convinced by some teleological principles. In relation to the statue of Saint Theresa in Ecstasy it becomes clear that the presence of such an extreme visualization of 'feeling' and 'emotion' in the age of Rationalism and the Scientific Revolution is at the least striking. Therefore, it seems that this image holds a place within the rhetoric of the Church against these threatening changes within society. The power of the Church, the world's longest reigning monarchy, is based on both tradition and change: we see here that tradition is being defended, but that the way in which its defense was cast reflected changes in art as well.

The rhetoric of 'emotion' as problem-solving

On the basis of above-mentioned arguments on different aspects of the statue of Saint Theresa by Bernini, the following conclusion can be deducted: in the statue, Bernini provided a solution to the following problem: the threat of people losing faith in the dogmatic truths of the Roman-Catholic Church as a consequence of rationalism in science and philosophy. Bernini answered through the rhetoric of emotion versus ratio. In this manner, the statue also served as a solution to Bernini's personal problem, because through reinforcing the dogma's of the Church, he could retain the pope's grace. This conclusion as such contains two important elements: that of a certain rhetoric, namely of emotion versus ratio, and that of a certain problem, namely that of people losing faith because of developments in society. In principle, these elements are rather abstract, but, as shall be seen, in this statue they have gotten their physical form in a single chapel within a small Roman church.

Saint Theresa as a paradigm of feeling

First, we shall look at the appearance of the chapel, and especially at the appearance of the statue of Saint Theresa. Her posture, that of a nun in physical and mental ecstasy, shows very clearly the dominance of feeling within meetings with God. The image of a visionary or mystic in a state of rapture while having a vision of God finds its origins with Saint Augustine of Hippo, a 4th century Church Father. The statue shows us that one does not receive the divine touch by rationalizing faith, like scientists and philosophers such as Descartes and Galilei did, but by surrendering to the religious fire which burns within the human being, and which is consuming Theresa. These kinds of purely sensory concepts have led to Bernini's Theresa being interpreted as being in an orgasmic state. However, as we have seen, the physicality of her ecstasy reinforces the central argument of feeling versus thinking within Bernini's applied rhetoric, rather than being a problem statement on its own. The arrow, which many have regarded as a phallic symbol, is not what brings Theresa to this state. Rather, it is the golden light which shines upon her. This is also represented by Bernini through golden beams behind the statue, which lead the light that falls through an invisible cupola towards the statue. The problem Bernini answers is that of rationalist scholars, who threatened the Church's dogmatic fundaments. In this sense, St Theresa in ecstasy is not a pars pro toto, but a symptom of a bigger issue. Through her emotional relationship with God, Theresa received both physical as well as mental pleasure, as discussed in relation to her writings. The fact that Bernini has portrayed both is crucial: it means that he did not regard Theresa as being in sexual ecstasy, but rather that he acknowledged that one does not reach the state of ecstasy through ratio, but through multiple levels of feeling. In other words: one can also feel with one's mind, which is on a higher religious level that thinking with one's mind. Very important in this aspect is the fact that the arrow, which Simon Schama saw as pointing towards Theresa's lower regions, from the perspective of the viewer on the ground level of the church seems to point towards Theresa's heart.

Bernini's 'The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni'

A very similar representation of a woman in rapture by Bernini is that of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni, which is located in the church of San Francesco a Ripa in the Roman neighborhood of Travestere. This funerary monument features a woman which is lying back in a manner similar to Saint Theresa. However, she is not placed upon clouds, and there is no angel. According to Shelly Perlove, throught his statue Bernini idealized death. She states that Bernini in this sculpture tried to promote devotion to Ludovica. He does so by appealing to the viewers' senses. Again, a very sensory artwork is discussed, although the divine aspect present in The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa is here substituted for the earthly virtues of the Blessed Ludovica. With idealizing death. Perlove meant that Bernini showed how living a pious life, devoted to doing good in the name of the Lord, made for a pleasurable death. Ludovica is in the ecstasy of her death, by which she is accepted into the heavenly kingdom. Thus Bernini employed the same rhetoric of emotion versus ratio, as emphasized by the state of physical rapture in which both Ludovica and St Theresa are. Though in the statue of Saint Theresa more of a divine aspect can be seen, both women are examples of the true faith because they let religious feeling triumph reason.

Spectating and reflecting

The ecstasy of Theresa reaches an official divine status, because she is being watched by eye witnesses. These eye witnesses were a crucial element to the canonization of mystics. In this case, they are the family Cornaro, who reinforced their patronage by being represented in the chapel. They were not present when Theresa had her vision, so their status as spectators is more metaphorical. It is striking that the head of the family and the direct patron of this chapel, Federico Cornaro, was an important clergyman, namely a cardinal from Venice. In this sense, he had a double interest with this chapel that is devoted to Theresa: first, he raised his own status through patronage and second, he contributed to Bernini's solution to the status of the Roman-Catholic Church in regard to the Protestants. Furthermore, he had played an important role to Saint Theresa's canonization.

In any case, Bernini's artistic decisions contributed towards the rhetoric of emotion versus ratio, so that is also the case with these spectators in their reliefs. Because mystical experiences had to be confirmed by eye witnesses, it was important that the invisible, i.e. the personal vision of the mystic, was made visible. Here, Bernini does that by making a very sensory sculpture, both in terms of theme as in terms of object. The figures of the angel and Saint Theresa are extremely smoothly polished, which makes them very tangible. The draperies of Theresa's garment, which seem to be cascading to all sides, and the spiraling clothing of the angel, which make him seem like a column of fire, are also very plastic, and give the statue a sense of urgency and actuality. These are not the monumental draperies of the classicizing Renaissance, but the characteristics of a real-life drama. The clouds, which hide the pedestal, give the idea that Theresa is being carried to heaven. The golden light beams behind the angel and Theresa, which constitute a representation of the divine light that shines on Theresa, form a contrast with the texture of the clouds and the figures, and as such make an appeal to the viewers' senses. The statue is placed above eye-level, which strengthens this heavenly aspect. This makes St Theresa in Ecstasy a very theatrical statue, that involves the viewer on a sensory level. However, the spectators in the chapel, the Cornaro family, ensure that this sensory level is supported by mental reflection as well.

A theater of exemplary belief

The setting of the statue within the chapel also contributes to the feeling of theatricality. The statue of Saint Theresa is placed within a kind of outward-bursting temple. The pediment of this temple recedes where the scene is taking place, which draws attention to the event within the temple. Because the temple is half round and opened towards the viewer, the whole resembles a stage within a theater rather than a closed-off temple. Important to keep in mind is that this architectural setting serves Bernini's main argument, St Theresa in Ecstasy, and as such supports this statue within the overall rhetoric. The temple is very festive, due to its Corinthian style, and therefore also resembles a theatre on the associative level. Another theatrical element is Bernini's use of the invisible light cupola. It appears that Bernini uses all kinds of 'pathetic' means in order to strengthen his central argument, the triumph of the feeling of true belief over rationality.

Although not as demanding as the bursting temple front, the sculptured spectators within the scene are also part of the theatrical feeling of the chapel. They are the male members of the Cornaro-family, seated in balconies in the reliefs on the side walls of the chapel. Though these balconies resemble theater boxes, these did not yet exist in this manner in 1652, when the chapel was made. However, the viewer does get the impression that these relief rooms, which form a kind of trompe l'oeil (and as such again make an appeal to the viewers' senses), were meant to enable the seeing of the spectacle in the temple-theater. The Cornaro's view Theresa's ecstasy and converse about it amongst each other. In this setting, they form a paradigm of rationality, where Theresa is a paradigm of feeling. However, they are not examples of how not to reach God. In contrary, because they were the patrons of this chapel, we believe that they form a positive example to the viewer: although you should not rationalize the belief in God or the Holy Scripture, and as such dismiss sensory experience, you do have to talk about your feeling of the true belief in order to get to a better understanding of it. In this way, emotion would really triumph over reason, because this means ratio becomes a part of emotion, and as such becomes its subordinate.


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